The Stranger by Kate Riordan

Was it simply a tragic accident? Or should the inhabitants of Penhallow have been more careful about whom they invited in? Read an extract from Kate Riordan's captivating novel The Stranger

The Stranger

'It wouldn’t have taken much to lure Diana down to Breakheart Cove, she who can never resist the dark pull of danger.'

Six weeks earlier

Sunday, 9th June: Diana Devlin’s diary

Starved as I am of any amusement, I begin this diary in desperation. I can think of nothing else to fill the endless hours. The quiet here is maddening. There is nothing but the sound of the sea hurling itself against the cliffs and the lonely cry of a gull. It makes one almost long for the air- raid siren.

I last kept a diary as a child, when time unwound as agonizingly slowly as it does here. I burnt that little book later, afraid someone would find it, but it was useful at the time. The accumulating words weighed me down when I felt I might float away or vanish into nothing. Perhaps they will have a similar effect here, where I increasingly find myself at the mirror, checking I haven’t disappeared.

That I’m here at all is Mother’s doing. Who else? I think a small part of her truly believes that exiling me to the very ends of England will transform me into someone better, but most of her simply wanted me gone.

‘For God’s sake, why the bloody land girls?’ I asked, when she first made the announcement. ‘Anything but them, with their fawn breeches and chilblains. Can you honestly see me mucking out stables and yanking at udders? Aren’t the Wrens rather more my speed?’

She smiled then, small eyes glittering, and I realized the old girl still had some fight left in her. The Women’s Land Army was a stroke of genius; she’d signed me up for the only war work guaranteed to be posted outside London.

I believe she dreamt up the scheme from her darkened bedroom, a damp flannel pressed to her forehead as the sirens began to echo through the streets and people turned their faces apprehensively upward. I imagine she didn’t even wait for the all-clear before she began the letter sealing my fate.

It was prescient timing, I’ll say that for her. That same afternoon, Jack Beresford had persuaded me down into the cellar of his family’s enormous, dust-sheeted house, which had been abandoned for the duration, the decent art and furniture dispatched to the country. Jack had looked so suave in his RAF uniform when he called, wings and signet ring glinting in the sun, that the subsequent fumbling and apologies among the wine and cobwebs were all the more dispiriting.

Jack’s dead now, poor old thing, lost somewhere beneath the frigid waves of the North Sea. My first kiss, and he no longer exists. When I heard, I wished I’d been a little more generous – let him do what he wanted. He was better than most of them.

Mother turned scarlet when she caught me coming in from seeing him that last time. She might be as blind as a bat but she has the nose of a bloodhound. She said I reeked of drink, but I think what she could really smell, what terrified her enough to send me packing, was Men with a capital M. Or perhaps Lust. Either will have terrified her. Still, she’s won this latest battle. Her last words, just before she slammed the door of the cab taking me to Paddington? ‘Diana, you’ll find that war, like death, is a great leveller.’ I tried to reflect on this rare pearl of wisdom while waiting on the platform for my train, head held high while everyone else was kissed and wept over, but all I could think was that it would never have occurred to her to pack me some sandwiches.

So here I find myself, banished to deepest, dreariest Cornwall, home of mead and piskies, where the locals glare and mutter under their breath when you encounter them in the lanes, and a round of sea shanties in the Mermaid passes for entertainment.

My billet is no less strange, though admittedly more civilized. I appreciate I’ve got off lightly with Penhallow Hall. I might have been sent to some Cold Comfort Farm sunk in mud and misery, where dull-eyed farm boys would have tried to mount me in the woodshed. Instead, I take my meals among the polished rosewood and silver of the formal dining room and sleep on a feather bed. There’s electricity and hot water. We don’t have to rise at dawn to plough fields or catch rats. The work is mostly weeding, planting vegetables and pruning. Even I can manage that. And yet . . . There’s something of the subtle nightmare about this house – where everything seems in order but still you’re compelled to dart from room to room, certain that grief and menace lurk somewhere, if only you keep looking. Our troubled host, Eleanor Grenville, seems perpetually on the verge of tears. Even on the good days she has the ground-down air of someone smiling bravely through exquisite suffering. It’s impossible to approach her without giving fright, however much throat-clearing one does.

The source of this internal horror may have something to do with her redoubtable mother, whose great age and confinement to an invalid’s chair have not diminished her iron grip on the place. One of the things I’ll remember about Penhallow is the unrelenting thud of her cane on the floor whenever she demands attendance. Some nights that sound reverberates along the hallways of my dreams, beating out a rhythm as I try to find my way out.

I do have some company. There’s another girl here and room for one more. I say girl: Rose is hardly that at thirty- two. In truth, I haven’t quite pinned her down yet. She fancies herself as something of an artist, with her sketch- book and wild hair, but in his photograph, her husband couldn’t look more ordinary. Frank is somewhere in the Atlantic with the navy but before the war he managed Rose’s father’s shop. Yesterday, I asked her if she was looking forward to going back one day and she gave me such an odd look. I think she secretly dreams of staying in Cornwall, scraping together the rent on a tiny cottage by selling sweet little watercolours. Rose never has a bad word to say about anyone but I’ve seen her face in unguarded moments.

The gong has just sounded for dinner, so I must rouse myself to go down. The insistence on this tradition is laughable. It’s as if we were carefree young things at a house party in 1928, dressed in our beaded finest and waving our crystal saucers at the butler for more Pol Roger. Instead, we have a scraping of butter to last a week and mud under our nails. At dinner, we have Eleanor trailing off in the middle of a sentence and Rose worrying whether she’s holding her knife correctly.

The gong-basher is Payne, Penhallow’s sepulchral retainer. A woman who makes Mrs Danvers seem jaunty. She appears both ancient and child-like (albeit a child in mourning), her poker-straight grey hair held back with a black velvet ribbon and her feet in house slippers, which allow her to creep silently about. The combination is dis- concerting, to say the least.

She’s been clutching her breast and dropping glasses ever since rumours began circulating about a Canadian airbase being built nearby. On the day she found out she was apoplectic, eyes bulging and hands trembling at the thought of all the brawling, drinking and pillaging that would ensue.

I can’t think of anything better than a bit of life in this cut-off place. I’m under no illusion that a Canadian airman will sweep in and save me, or indeed be any more adept at seduction than poor Jack Beresford. I just like it when things are shaken up. One good thing about this dreary war is that it encourages people to break the rules. To do extraordinary things they would never dare contemplate ordinarily. I welcome the thought of that. When one is as hopelessly bored as  I am, one relishes a bit of danger. It takes one’s mind off oneself. And that’s always a relief.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more